Chapman, R. W. The Portrait of a Scholar and Other Essays Written in Macedonia London: Oxford University Press 1922

Plato is the first of ancient writers to use quotation freely in the modern allusive way. Other Greek writers quote the poets, or the Delphic oracle, in a forensic or didactic manner, to point a moral or enforce a doctrine; as Cephalus, in the opening scene of The Republic, quotes Pindar as a climax to his dissertation. But Plato’s own quotations come unsought; he prefers a poet’s words to his own simply because they are better, or because they occur. Somewhere he says ἕκτῃ δ᾽ἐν γενεᾷ, φησὶν Ὀρφεὺς, καταπαύσατε κόσμον άοιδῆς, when he means no more than ‘Sixthly.’ Cicero’s letters are full of quotations of the same kind, made currente calamo.

The tradition of classical quotation in modern literature has a double source. It derives partly from the reasonable veneration of antiquity which informed the Revival of Learning; but it may also be connected with the ritual of the sortes and the medieval conception of the wizard Virgil. In the convention called Euphuism the argument from antiquity is as cogent, and as indispensable, as the argument from nature; Pliny and the chameleon are of equal authority. Henry Peacham, in his Compleat Gentleman, is very full on this topic of the efficacy of ancient learning. He tells of one who was cured of madness, or some grievous distemper, ‘by onely reading of Quint. Curce.’ In such writers quotation is not illustrative, but demonstrative. To say, with Johnson, that Burton’s Anatomy is ‘overloaded with quotation’ is to prefer a charge which Burton would not have understood. It is like telling a barrister that he has too little argument and too much evidence.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries men still had the sense that in appealing to antiquity they were turning from the transitory to the permanent, from the disputable to the accepted. Jack Wilkes, who would say anything, said quotation was pedantic. Johnson: ‘No, Sir, it is a good thing; there is community of mind in it. Classical quotation is the parole of literary men all over the world.’ That the world has lost this communis sensus was doubtless a necessary result of the growth of the kingdom of knowledge; but it is a real loss to society. Two ex-Cabinet Ministers were recently heard to quote Greek at lunch; but this was among friends. To quote Horace in public, once a duty, is become an indecency. Even in learned societies and at convivial hours the sons of science raise their unlettered heads, and you quote Voltaire at your own risk. A letter-writer, or a writer to the Literary Supplement, who chooses or is chosen by his audience, may take more liberties; the reader’s blush of shame or scowl of resentment is at the worst a private emotion.

In the undress literature of 1820 quotation runs riot. Charles Lamb writes to a friend (about the friend’s poem): ‘There is a quotation in it, always bad in verse, seldom advisable in prose.’ If this was his considered principle, he did not wear it out in practice. The Essays of Elia are full of quotations and half-quotations, reminiscences and echoes. In Hazlitt quotation becomes a disease; in the essay ‘On Going a Journey’ are at least twenty-nine quotations. Quoting for quoting’s sake–the verse at the end of a sermon, the neat tail-piece of an article–is as bad as willful punning. A quotation, like a pun should come unsought, and then be welcomed only for some propriety or felicity justifying the intrusion. A writer who lets himself run on in borrowed phrases may be suspected of not writing from his own mind. Lamb, indeed, confessed that he had to let books do his thinking for him–‘I cannot sit down and think.’ But Lamb is a law neither to himself nor to others; he is the only individual of his species, and any dress becomes him.

Quotations range from depths of silliness–as when parrots call a thing ‘small by degrees and beautifully less’ when they mean that it is small to rare heights of felicity. ‘When a book is at once both good and rare–when the individual is almost the species, and when that perishess

We know not where is that Promethean torch That can its light relumine–

such a book, for instance, as the Life of the Duke of Newcastle, by his Duchess–‘no casket is rich enough, no casing sufficiently durable, to honor and keep such a jewel.’ The beauty of Lamb’s quotation (flagrantly misquoted) lies in the graceful extravagance of fancy, which likens the beauty of a rare old book to the mortal loveliness of Desdemona. The quotation hints at more than it expresses. This kind of wit is most obvious when the quotation is made to carry a pun. The ancients did not consider a pun as degrading the dignity of poetry. When Cassandra in her frenzy invokes Apollo as Ἀπόλλων ἐμός, we know that she means Apollyon ‘my destroyer’; and Aeschylus elsewhere in a splendid poem calls Helen ofTroy ἑλέναυς, ‘robber of navies’; of which Browning’s ‘Ships’ Hell’ is a travesty. Plato, our earliest grammarian, made no distinction between a pun and an etymology.

Punning is rare in serious modern verse; but by our earlier poets puns are made with a serious and even a mystical intention. It is impossible that the Dean of St. Paul’s can have been innocent of a pun on his name when he wrote

When thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

And in the same poem–

But swear by Thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore.

These lines are addressed ‘to God the Father’; and in Donne’s sermons the device is used again and again with the same solemnity.

I shall rise from the dead, from the darke station, from the prostration, from the prosternation of death, and never misse the sunne, which shall then be put out, for I shall see the Sonne of God, the Sunne of glory, and shine myself, as that sunne shines.

The current notion that punning is necessarily inept is an affectation; puns are a legitimate form of wit, and the punning quotation may be very happy. When Wilkes on his acquittal was carried in triumph on the shoulders of the mob, Burke quoted what Horace. says of Pindar:

numerisque fertur
lege solutus.

This, Reynolds said, was ‘dignifying a pun.’ A gentleman named Money was thought uxorious. A friend visiting him after an absence found the lady expectant and her husband more uxorious than ever; and reported to their common friends:

Crescit amor Nummi quantum ipsa Pecunia crescit.

This was Dean Mansel’s, and is good of its kind.

The habit of quoting other men’s phrases to save trouble is one vice of writing. The opposite is the use of quotation to deceive, or to dazzle by parade of learning. There are writers who drop into French (as the present writer may be suspected of dropping into Greek)with all the air of taking the intelligent reader into their confidence; when they are well aware that few Englishmen read anything French except French novels. But that is sometimes a pardonable malice which introduces an allusion that will be taken by some readers at the expense of others. In a notable work on ancient Greek syntax the example given of the simple sentence is τὸ παιδίον ἐβόα, ‘The baby was crying.’ This is a wicked joke intended for the private ear of those who are familiar with the first oration of Lysias and remember the discreditable circumstances in which the child was left to cry. Here no one is insulted, and the writer and a few of his readers are innocently tickled.

But quips of this kind win more admiration than they deserve. They are foreign to the proper business of writing, and are at their best only occasionally permissible. The most apt and most pleasing quotation is, after all, that which comes unbidden and is too winning to be denied reception. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his Johnson on Shakespeare, mentions that Henri Beyle translated Johnson’s remarks on the Unities and appropriated them as the manifesto of the young romantics: ‘but he told not them that he had taken the honey out of the carcass of the lion.’ This could not be bettered; and it is as modest as it is felicitous. The writer has had a happy thought, and makes his readers free of it. He takes no credit to himself. An author who sits down to embellish his essay with a wealth of quotation and allusion, and to point it by verbal dexterities, forsakes his proper function, and forgoes the privilege of securing the reader’s attention to what is his own.

On this, as on so many questions of literary propriety, the practice of Johnson is instructive. His capacious memory was full of literature. In classical quotation he was so ready as to hit off nine mottoes for the Idler in as many minutes. He said ‘I love anecdote.’ He often repeated whole poems to his friends or to himself. But when he expounds his own wisdom he is very sparing of quotation. He often, indeed, cites maxims of Roman law or scholastic philosophy—as volenli non fit injuria; exceptio probat regulam; de minimis non curat lex; dolus latet in universalibus. But this is an appeal to authority, to the formulated wisdom of ages. Merely ornamental and allusive quotation he avoided; he would not lessen himself, or insult his readers, by dressing his thoughts in borrowed finery. This is one of the austerities which have made it supposed that his writing is dull. It is not often dull; but it is in a rare degree self-reliant and proud.

Ornamental quotation has always a theatrical quality, and is most in place upon public occasions. In days when literature was still at home in the theatre, the law courts, and the senate-house, a dramatic moment was sometimes embalmed in an apt quotation. Great statesmen vied with each other in the practice of the art, and were even so careful of their fame as to quote with their dying breath. Burke owed not a little of his reputation for genius to his powers of brilliant quotation, which in a man of less abundant fertility might be supposed the fruit of study. When Sir Joshua concluded the last of his discourses to the Royal Academy, his friend stepped forward, and taking the lecturer by the hand pronounced these lines:

The Angel ended; and in Adam’s ear
So charming left his voice, that he a while
Thought him still speaking, still stood fix’d to hear.

Much solemn nonsense has been talked and written about the sin of misquotation. Of course references should be verified for publication, and scholars and reviewers are right to set a high value on accuracy of citation. But it is the man who quotes without book whose reading has made him a full man. If Matthew Arnold, accused of misquoting Keats, really replied that he ‘could not believe it possible’, he talked like a prig. Men of letters formerly quoted from memory, or adapted their originals to the purpose of the moment, without scruple and without fear of exposure. The polite correspondence of the eighteenth century is full of misquotations of Virgil and Milton. We now think it necessary to be shocked by every verbal inaccuracy. We send our quotations into the world forearmed by private verification; and when other adventurers write a book, we turn to our reference shelves, not without expectation of disclosures.

The novelists and essayists of today often affect an elegant disdain of learning, and make ‘professor’ a term of abuse. Our writers of scientific treatises are for the most part innocent of any pretension to literature. Both parties are losers by this unfortunate separatism, which has split the republic of letters into factions. We have all smiled, with Lamb and Hazlitt, at the solemn person who supposed that by ‘the two greatest names in English literature’ must be meant Sir Isaac Newton and Mr. Locke. But even Lamb, it will be remembered, did not dispute that these were the greatest names. The Essay and the Principia were, in fact, like The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, and like the Republic and the History of Animals, considered as masterpieces of literature; while poets and pamphleteers were ambitious to be reputed men of learning. The distinction now often assumed to be absolute between science and literature, between information and entertainment, between knowledge and genius, was unknown to the authors of Pantagruel and The Praise of Folly. The false assumptions which underlie it have done much to make what should be serious literature, indigestible, and what should be amusing, frivolous.

August 1918.